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28/03/2019

Drone wars – what’s the latest legislation on the use of drones?

In December, Gatwick Airport, the UK’s second major air hub, was brought to a complete standstill for several days. There was no bomb threat or unpronounceable Icelandic volcano eruption. This time, thousands of travellers and some of the world’s biggest airlines were stopped in their tracks… by a rather small drone. Allegedly. We’re still unsure if there actually was a drone involved, but it certainly had a major impact in the operation of a major international airport and grabbed the headlines all around the world for a few days.

The potential threat to air traffic was then highlighted a second time when the same thing happened in January this year at Heathrow. In fact, drone alerts have been causing mayhem around the UK’s airports for some time, despite some pretty strict and rigorously-enforced legislation that was originally designed to try and stop exactly this problem.

Currently, it is against the law to fly a drone above 400ft (or 120m) and you are forbidden from operating any kind of drone within a kilometre of any airport boundary (as of mid-March 2019). The major airports have anti-drone equipment that they are supposed to deploy as soon as a drone is sighted, but because drones move so quickly, it can be very difficult to respond in time and anti-drone measures have, so far, proved to be completely ineffective.

Drones are not just banned from around airports – they’re also restricted in or near to National Trust and English Heritage sites, and an operator’s permit (applied for in advance) is required before a drone operator can get that spectacular aerial shot of Stonehenge.

With a raft of legislation already in place, you’d think that drone operators are now all law-abiding citizens who operate their drones according to the rules. Unfortunately, though, nearly all of the legislation currently in place is being widely ignored, and we continue to have ‘near miss’ incidents between aircraft and drones on a regular basis.

Toughening up the laws

In response, the government is toughening up the laws to try and get the situation under control, minimising the possibility that drones could be used as a terrorist weapon against vulnerable targets such as airports. From March 31st 2019, new legislation is being introduced that includes an increase in the ‘no fly zone’ around airports from 1km to 5km. That includes the airport’s aerodrome traffic zone, as well as extensions to the ends of runways to prevent any potential collisions with aircraft on take-off or landing.

From the end of November 2019, drone operators using drones of between 250g and 20kg (which pretty much covers every single drone in the country apart from micro-drones) will have to be registered with the Civil Aviation Authority. Registered users will need to pass an online competency test, although how this part of the proposal is to be enforced remains to be seen.

The proposals also include a minimum age for operators, as well as extra powers for the police to seize drones, and issue £100 on-the-spot fines for anyone who refuses to land a drone when instructed to do so by a police officer.

Teching up the drones

Drones are already stuffed full of gadgets and cameras, but part of the government’s proposals include embedded technology that will physically prevent drones from entering specific areas (such as airports). One of the major influencers for this particular path has been the increased use of drones to deliver contraband to prisons. By embedding GPS-based counter-measures within the drone’s programming, they hope to stop drones from becoming a menace not just around airports, but in other locations too.

There’s also a great deal of testing and R&D surrounding anti-drone technology to protect sensitive sites. From air-nets to directional radio frequency generators that produce ‘jamming signals’, causing the drone to crash, there’s plenty of counter-drone tech that will be making an appearance at an airport near you this year. Whether it’ll actually work or not remains to be seen.

Educating the public

Drones started out as a bit of fun for the kids, which usually ended up stuck in a tree or smashed into a million pieces within half an hour of getting the box open. However, today’s drones are far more sophisticated, bigger, and loaded with tech that, if used properly, do genuinely have myriad positive uses. The new legislation coming in this year is an attempt to stop those who would use drones for the wrong reasons, whatever their motivation, and to give the Police and the authorities greater powers to stop them.

Some of it may seem a little draconian, but it will only take one major incident between a drone and an aircraft to trigger even stricter rules on the use of drones by the public, or even a total ban on the use of drones altogether. Nobody wants that to happen, so perhaps as we start to see drones become a part of everyday life, we do need at least some sort of legislative framework in place to stop people getting hurt, or even killed. 

Lewis Holroyd, Solicitor